Passenger demand may not exist right now for airlines but global supply chains still demand the cargo capacity those aircraft represent. Passenger aircraft are being pressed into service as freighters, filling their belly space with goods to fly across the globe. And, in some cases, even a bit more.
For a number of airlines the pitch to fly planes with the seats empty and the belly full has proven a compelling case. Cathay Pacific made that pivot relatively early, taking advantage of the recovery now being seen in mainland China and a need for manufacturers to get product out of the country and back into the global supply chain. Chief Customer and Commercial Officer Ronald Lam explains, “[W]e are also ramping up our cargo capacity by mounting charter services and operating certain suspended passenger services purely for airfreight to meet cargo customer demand.”
Other airlines are making similar moves. American Airlines operated its first cargo-only flight in 36 years last weekend and more are coming. Delta Air Lines and United Airlines are running similar operations, mostly focused on transatlantic routes, while also keeping the belly cargo moving on their remaining passenger flights. Air Canada announced similar efforts on Wednesday as well.
It’s an honor to be part of these cargo-only flights. They represent much needed aid for the world and hope for our team.– Ken Jarrell, American Airlines Fleet Service Clerk, Cargo Services – DFW
Cargo in the seats
Putting cargo in the belly is relatively easy. Containers and pallets make the loading a relatively smooth proposition and the capacity is significant. But for flights with absolutely no passengers on board and some light-weight cargo, such as masks and gloves, needing to move quickly across the globe, filling the passenger cabin represents a significant boost in capacity. It is a more complex operation than just loading cargo below, but it is one that several airlines are now pursuing.
Lufthansa is among the airlines pursuing that option. The carrier is flying passengers planes full of cargo, in addition to its regular freighter operations, carrying large volumes of medical supplies. Goods are stored on the seats and in the overhead bins. And all properly secured, of course.
China Eastern made similar moves with some of its A330 aircraft, loading the seats to move medical equipment from China to Europe.
Realizing the demand likely will continue, China Eastern went a step further, removing some of the seats from an A330 to deliver a “combi” configuration of sorts. It cannot accept containers on the main deck in this configuration but it can accept boxes larger than can fit in the seats. That 31″ pitch has limits for cargo, too.
Airbus is getting in on the action directly as well. The carrier pressed its A330-800 test frame into service, flying charter cargo operations to help move supplies from China to Europe.
Not everyone is keen on the idea of using passenger planes to move cargo. India instituted a nationwide lockdown this week but still needs to move goods around the country for its 1.3 billion residents. Passenger airlines halted operations as part of the lockdown while cargo flights are permitted to continue. Butt regulators are making that distinction based on the aircraft configuration, not what is being carried. This prevents passenger planes in India from being used for cargo-only operations.
For a (generally) up-to-date listing of airlines and their operational levels check out this spreadsheet maintained by PaxEx.Aero and other industry experts.
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